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It's off-the-couch time

The new cable network Fit TV hopes that round-the-clock exercise and fitness programs not only will attract viewers but bring them to their feet.

March 22, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Can a medium that celebrates the couch potato lifestyle possibly propel those spuds to get off their sofas and do some ab crunches?

That's the big question behind Fit TV, a new network from Discovery Channel that's all-fitness all the time, from aerobics and yoga classes to fitness lifestyle programs. There are also shows about diet and nutrition. Sure, the gym rat, jock and surf crowd may be all over this, but let's face it, they're not the ones who really need it.

The network's launch last December came at a time when the issue of obesity was receiving a lot of attention in this country, thanks to a steady stream of warnings about the health dangers of being overweight and not getting enough exercise.

"It's the perfect time to launch this," says Carole Tomko, Fit TV's general manager. "We wanted to make this not just an exercise network but a network that everyone can use. We want be able to reach people and have them adopt a fitness way of life."

Tomko, a former production executive with Discovery's Animal Planet channel, realizes that TV viewers already have a plethora of choices for shaping up, from thousands of workout videos and books to gym memberships, personal trainers and home gym equipment. And there are workout shows elsewhere on the TV dial, including ESPN's 13-year-old "Bodyshaping," Lifetime's "Denise Austin's Daily Workout" and the Oxygen Network's yoga program "Inhale." None of these shows has captured a huge audience, however.

Discovery is counting that its round-the-clock programming will appeal to viewers who don't want to get up at 5 a.m. to catch "Bodyshaping." "There's such an untapped market," Tomko says. "Early morning is not the only time people want information about exercise."

The network also hopes viewers will find switching on the TV easier than popping in a tape or DVD, less intimidating than maneuvering a gym and more motivational than reading the latest diet guru's book. Tomko promises programming that cuts through the scads of information and misinformation about exercise, diet and nutrition. As with its other channels, including Discovery Health Channel, the cable firm has an online component; this one includes recipes, message boards and a fitness assessment. Tomko says there's little crossover between Fit TV and Discovery Health; the latter features "Body Challenge," a shape-up makeover show, but programming mostly concentrates on babies and medical stories.

Among the programs Fit TV offers (the network is available in the Los Angeles area on DirecTV and several cable providers) are follow-along exercise shows such as "In Shape With Sharon Mann," hosted by the former Canadian aerobics champion, and "Breathing Space Yoga," featuring yoga and meditation. Also on are "Secrets of Superstar Fitness," about how the stars work out; "Fit Cuisine," a cooking show; and "Urban Fitness TV," a magazine format program showing urbanites having fun getting fit.

Mann's show, "Urban Fitness" and "Fit Cuisine" are considered anchor programs, as is "Gilad's Bodies in Motion." Host Gilad Janklowicz has skipped around from ESPN to Fox to the Health Network.

Fit TV is the second network with that name; the first started as part of the Family Channel in 1993 and was headed by personal trainer and infomercial fixture Jake "Body by Jake" Steinfeld. That was eventually sold to Fox, which folded it into its Health Network. That was bought by Discovery, which stripped it of the health-related programming already covered by its own Discovery Health channel, opting for an all-fitness format and restoring the original name.

"Urban Fitness TV" was a Canadian show that aired from 2002 to 2003 before being added to the Fit TV lineup. Host and producer Derek Noble, a trainer who lives in Los Angeles, says the show lets viewers know that there are ways to make exercise fun, even in concrete jungles.

Some in the health and fitness field say that a network devoted to fitness can play some role in helping to encourage Americans to adopt a healthier lifestyle. "The obesity crisis isn't going to be solved by one entity alone," says Melissa Johnson, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, "but it's commendable that cable television is stepping up to the plate."

Besides entertaining and educating the masses, Johnson adds, television can be an exerciser's best friend if it can motivate and offer support: "People have to be inspired to make changes and inspired to move," she says. "Television needs to speak to their heart, like a story about a regular person who achieved their goals. To be honest, people actually know what to do, but they just haven't taken that next step to do it."

Whether they will do so based on a TV show might be Fit TV's make-or-break factor.

David Conroy, assistant professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, believes the network has the potential to help time-strapped viewers understand exercise and nutrition, and could inspire those thinking about starting a workout program.

"The amazing thing about the entertainment industry," Conroy says, "is that it can make anything entertaining. We see Donald Trump firing someone, and that's entertaining. I can't imagine any harm coming from [a fitness network]. If it works for a few people and can reduce someone's risk of heart disease, I think it would be worth it."

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